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  • Writer's pictureScott Glazier

City of Fires

Updated: Jan 6, 2023

How we doing Los Angeles? Keeping cool? Staying hydrated? As summer marches onward at Speakeasy Tattoo we find ourselves battling the blistering heat in the heart of LA and bracing ourselves for the inevitable blitzkrieg of fire season. Just this morning I passed a blaze while on my way to the studio, signaling that the season of burning was officially here. Which, as it turns out is a nice segue into this week’s topic, that I’m really stoked to talk about because it's just so objectively cool. Warning: history nerd rambling ahead but also some truly dope arts and crafts, so stay with me.

On March 24, 1603, Tokugawa Ieyasu, heralded as one of the great unifiers of Japan, was granted the title of Shogun by Emperor Go-Yozei, thus ending Japan’s Sengoku period (the era of the warring states and the time period in which a good 70 percent of anime takes place) and marking the beginning of the Edo period. Two hundred years later, Tokugawa Ieyasu’s great-great-great-great-grandson, Tokugawa Ienari, was Shogun, but while the Shogunate had remained in the family for two centuries, not everything could stay the same. By the time of Tokugawa Ienari’s ascension, social unrest regarding what was seen as a corrupt government had begun to foment. Samurai, who could once be lauded as great heroes during the era of the warring states, became symbols of the inequality between the classes. Like knights of noble birth, one had to be born into a samurai family in order to be given the title, but in the centuries of peace throughout the Edo period, and with the consequent decline in importance of martial skills, the samurai became aristocrats and bureaucrats, seated squarely at the top of a rigorously stratified caste system. This was the social climate when the Suikoden, a 14th century Chinese novel about a band of rebellious outlaws fighting the rich to aid the poor and downtrodden, gained popularity. While translations of the work into Japanese date back to at least 1757, an 1805 translation, illustrated by celebrated artist Hokusai, gave the novel broad appeal. For this reason, the characters and stories were already widely known when in 1827, another ukiyo-e artist by the name of Utagawa Kuniyoshi (known by his given name, Kuniyoshi, rather than by his surname, which was adopted from his school of ukiyo-e) was commissioned to illustrate a new translation.

Top: Hakujisso Hakushô by Utagawa Kuniyoshi (1798 - 1861)

Bottom: Byôtaichû Setsuei and Shôsharan Bokushun by Utagawa Kuniyoshi (1798 - 1861)

It would make him famous. Kuniyoshi’s dynamic, full-color illustrations depicted many of the heroes in intricate full-body tattoos, and the widespread success of his work created a demand for similar tattoos among those wishing to emulate the strength of the rebel heroes of the Suikoden, also known as 108 Heroes of the Water Margin, or Outlaws of the Marsh. These tattoos were applied using wooden handles and metal needles attached by silk thread, and utilized a specialty ink still produced today, known as Nara ink, after the prefecture in which it was traditionally produced. Not only would these tattoos signal a readiness to fight injustice, but often the motifs were those of gods, protective spirits, and powerful beasts. These designs were chosen to lend the power of the entity depicted unto the wearer of the tattoo. Perhaps for this reason, they became particularly popular among, and identified with, the fire brigades of Edo.

“Edo” is not only the name of the 267 year period during which the Tokugawa family reigned as Shogun, but also the old name for what we now call Tokyo. It was a city marked by rapid growth, spiraling around Edo Castle as the daimyo (vassal lords), the samurai, and their staff moved into residences around the Shogun. The population nearly tripled between 1640 and 1720, from around 400,000 residents to some 1,100,000. This booming expansion meant that the urban sprawl needed to be built quickly, and densely. The most common building materials at the time were wood, paper, straw and bamboo. All of these elements together made of Edo a tinderbox; in fact Edo was sometimes called the “City of Fires”. While Kyoto had only 9 great fires during that period, Edo had as many as 85. If smaller fires are also counted, Edo suffered some 1,798 fires during the Tokugawa Shogunate—986 of which were between 1801 and 1867. Obviously, firefighters had their work cut out for them. A popular saying of the time can be translated to mean “Fights and fires are the flowers of Edo, yet the greater essence is the fireman”.

Kabuki - Tattooed Firefighter by Toyohara Kunichika (1835-1900)

The firefighters, or hikeshi, had by the 19th century adopted a very unique visual style. Firstly, each of the 48 districts of Edo had its own brigade, each with its own distinctive matoi, or standard. This was a large, three dimensional white shape at the end of a pole, with trailing flags hanging down. The point of this object was to be clearly visible

at the site of a fire, as the standard-bearer would climb up to a rooftop and wave the matoi, signaling to the other firefighters the location and direction of a fire. This was seen as something of a heroic job, as the standard-bearer would have to be first on the scene, and would also have to climb into a dangerous rooftop situation in the midst of a blaze. The remaining members of the brigade would then charge in, attempting to put out the fire, or else, use hooks and axes to pull the affected building down before the fire spread. They were not equipped with today’s protective clothing. Instead, they walked into the mouth of the inferno with thick coats, dipped in water, to provide some means of defense against the flames.

These coats were perhaps the most aesthetic things you will ever see. Each was reversible, with the emblem of the firefighter’s brigade on one side, and on the other, an elaborate design colored using the tsutsugaki method of resist dyeing. Like the tattoos inspired by the Suikoden, these beautiful images often contained motifs of protective spirits and courageous heroes, both an inspiration to and guardian of the fireman who wore the coat. When a firefighter went into a fire, he would wear the coat with the design to the skin, and the emblem of his brigade turned to the outside. This was for several reasons: one, it made him easily identifiable as a member of that particular firefighting brigade; two, it protected the intricate design from the flames; and three, it pressed the protective images to the skin, just as did their tattoos.

Things changed in 1867. Following decades of excess amongst the ruling class, a devastating famine, powerful earthquakes, intercession by Western powers, and, yes, fires, fires, and more fires, the Tokugawa Shogunate was destabilized. Even the samurai had begun to speak out against the Shogun. Then, the Emperor became grievously ill at the age of 36 and died, leaving his 14 year old son to inherit the throne. That boy would come to be known as Emperor Meiji, and he would utterly change the cultural landscape of Japan by instituting sweeping reforms. He outlawed the samurai caste. He outlawed the topknot hairstyle and he himself wore a Western style haircut. He sent envoys to the United States and Britain to attempt to renegotiate unfavorable treaties and to bring home every kind of industrial advancement they could find in lands abroad. He also outlawed the practice of tattooing, possibly because he wished to change the ways in which Japan was perceived in the eyes of the Western world, where full-body tattoos were uncommon. Thus, tattoos gained a reputation of criminality in Japan, a conception that still persists somewhat today (though this is slowly changing). Despite this, Japanese-style tattoos remain popular, continuing a tradition hundreds of years in the making. Though they may not know it, everyone with a jumping koi sleeve or a sick Eastern dragon tattoo owes a debt to Utagawa Kuniyoshi, one of the last great masters of ukiyo-e.


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